“If you don’t have a cultural identity, you don’t know who you are. You don’t know where you are going, or why you came to this world. We have come to stay; to create a legacy within the history of Bocas del Toro’s youth, so that they know who they are, where we come from, and where we are going.”
– Johnny Moreno Rose
A beautiful ceremony was held in Simon Bolivar Park on January 7, 2021, where a new cultural and educational center was inaugurated: El Instituto de Excelencia Afrodescendiente Luis Russell Machore ICLEIA (Instituto de Cultura, Liderazgo, Excelencia e Investigación), or in English, The Institute for Afro-descendant Excellence Luis Russell Machore (Institute of Culture, Leadership, Excellence and Research).
The Luis Russell Machore portion of the name is an homage to the famous Bocas del Toro-born Jazz musician who certainly took his culture, leadership, excellence and research all the way to New Orleans, Chicago and New York City, becoming one of the pioneers of the musical genre in the 1920’s. Founder of the institute Johnny Moreno Rose is related to the late great jazz pianist, being a third cousin on Moreno’s mother’s side (Machore family), and wishes to honor his family legacy’s and the hometown cultural hero by the institute donning the name of Luis Russell Machore.
The new institute is a cultural and educational center. The project is being led by Mr. Johnny Moreno, a Bocas de Toro native poet. Moreno has recently had his work published internationally and is now inspired to direct his energies to the cultural preservation and educational pursuits of the youth in his hometown. Moreno has teamed up with Dr. Susana Villanueva Eguia Lis, who will be launching this effort with Moreno by donating her time to give English classes and chess instruction. The classes will take place once a week from January-May 2021, with a total of 45 students. The courses will be given virtually.
Dr. Lis, originally from Mexico, has a Ph.D. in Latin American literature and culture with a specialization in poetry and is a professor of Spanish Language and Latin American civilization and culture at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, USA. She also happens to be the two time national chess champion of Mexico. She was recruited to attend Texas Tech University for her doctorate degree and a M.A. in Foreign Language Education and Online Learning. What a blessing it is to have her now share her talents to educate the youth of the community with free English and chess instruction.
“Many of the kids in the community speak English natively. They speak it at home; but many don’t know how to read and write it so well,” explains Johnny Moreno, director of operations of the new institute ICLEIA. “It is to help build up the community in an intellectual and educated way.” Moreno added, about the classes.
Bocas del Toro is home to descendants of Jamaican and other West Indie island immigrants from the 19th and 20th century who have preserved the English language throughout the generations. Though Spanish is the official language of Panama and the main language for school instruction, the Jamaican-style English spoken in Bocas is the preferred native language of many Afro-Panamanians living on Panama’s Caribbean coast.
Dr. Lis has been a frequent visitor of Bocas del Toro through the years who fell in love with the islands and has dedicated some of her Latin American civilization and culture research to it, her focus and interest in Bocas del Toro being Afro-Panamanian history, culture and literature. She has received honors for her participation in the research of Afro-Antilliean poetry and literature from the University of Panama and ISAE Universidad in Changuinola. We asked her about the origin story of this new endeavor:
“The inspiration to create the institute came after realizing that the history of the Afro-descendant people in Bocas del Toro is not easily accessible to the children and the community in general. As a researcher I come to the area, collect data, write an article or two, then I present it abroad in the USA or at a University Conference in Panama, or at ISAE University in Changuinola, but the community does not get the information nor the benefit. The monument to Marcus Garvey in Isla Colón for example is almost abandoned and it is not easy to find. Most local people do not even know who he was or why there is a monument dedicated to him in Isla Colon. When local poet Mr. Moreno suggested I collaborate I was happy to jump in and help. With COVID we are facing the scary situation where the elderly in Bocas Town and Bastimentos could die and their historical and cultural knowledge could be lost forever. We want to try to record it and publish (videos or interview transcripts) on a website in order to preserve it for future generations.”
The January 7 inauguration ceremony started with a beautiful prayer and soulful blessings by Reverend Marva Gamarra. Bocas del Toro Mayor Emiliano Torres was in attendance, lending his support not only legislatively, but with his presence and words of encouragement for the project. “Material possessions come and go, but knowledge, culture and traditions are things that can and must be preserved,” said Mayor Torres.
Also in attendance was Justino Pineda, of the museum and gift shop with antiquities and local artisanal work behind the park on the corner of 2nd street. Pineda highlighted how important it was to pass on the cultural and historical knowledge of the area, while keeping traditions alive. “Ever since tourism has arrived, it feels like every other foreign holiday is celebrated more than November 16,” mentioned Pineda, referring to the anniversary of the foundation of Bocas del Toro in 1903. Pineda presented Moreno and Dr. Lis with a piece of original artwork from the area, to honor this new cultural and educational initiative.
And so it begins. Classes start this week and will last until May. The organization is non-profit and although the name is the Institute of Afro-descendant Excellence, the classes are open to people of all ethnic backgrounds. The inaugural course is limited to the 45 students that have already enrolled, as a way to keep with a manageable amount of students for Dr. Lis, ensuring a high quality of instruction. The focus now is on younger students, though they hope to open the classes up for people of all ages; and subjects beyond English and chess.
What does the future have in store for the Instituto: Instituto de Excelencia Afrodescendiente Internacional Luis Russell-ICLEIA?
“We are planning to work long-term starting with ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for heritage speakers/beginners and chess to promote critical thinking skills. This is a way to start with virtual sessions during COVID. In the near future we would like to include history, photography, art classes, culture seminars, creative writing workshops, poetry workshops, music and dance as well as a YouTube Channel and a mural. I believe it would also be important to share biographies and history of successful Afro-descendant youth, adults, and women to promote a positive image of success and excellence in order to inspire and fight negative stereotypes of Afro-descendant youth often seen in the media. We also would like others to join as members or sponsors. Fundraising is definitely a goal in the near future. A website, a Youtube Channel, a physical address are also goals,” said Dr. Lis and Moreno in an interview.
Congratulations to Johnny Moreno and Dr. Susana Lis. Thank you for investing your time, resources and talents in the educational pursuits and the cultural preservation of the generation of Bocatoreños. We hope this initiative finds support, interest and collaboration along the way to make it something truly powerful in the community. You can count on the support of the The Bocas Breeze Newspaper.
If you are interested in learning more or becoming involved, get in touch on Facebook: Instituto de Excelencia Afrodescendiente Internacional Luis Russell-ICLEIA.